Between the catwalk shows and millinery workshops, a key theme of this year’s Melbourne Fashion Week was sustainability, “providing designers with strong ethical foundations the opportunity to join our runways, or open the dialogue on sustainability in our talk programme”.
Events during the week saw industry representatives discussing how to “shift the status quo” and “beyond greenwashing”. On the panel at the latter event was Eloise Bishop, head of sustainability at Country Road Group, one of Australia’s largest specialty fashion retailers.
Meanwhile, the company’s employees were on strike outside Country Road stores, chaining themselves to other protests in search of better pay and working conditions.
Among these workers’ complaints, mostly women at the company’s distribution warehouse west of Melbourne, were being paid an average of $23 an hour, compared to about $30 for workers doing the same job at a Pacific Brands warehouse across the street.
On Monday, employees returned to work after reaching an agreement with the company that includes better job security, union recognition and a 13.3% pay increase over four years. That’s about $3 an hour extra.
While this may have brought an end to the celebration of the strike, questions remain. How did a company so respected for its commitment to sustainability provoke employees to go on strike for almost a fortnight?
Low marks for worker empowerment
Country Road Group is a subsidiary of Woolworth Holdings Limited (which also owns David Jones) of South Africa. The company’s clothing brands include Country Road, Witchery, Trainee, Politiks and Mimco. Despite the pandemic, Country Road Group’s sales rose 13.5% to $1.05 billion in the last fiscal year.
The company is regarded by many as an industry leader on ethics and sustainability. For example, the 2021 Ethical Fashion Guide compiled by Baptiste World Aid awarded it an overall “A” grade. It performed well on four out of five rating criteria, “A+” on its policies and governance, “A+” for trade and risk, “A” for supplier relations and human rights monitoring, and another “for environmental sustainability”. A” scored.
On worker empowerment, however, it only scored a “C”.
These results suggest that the company is in a blind spot in addressing concerns about labor conditions in its supply chain.
supply chain blind spot
Because of the disparities between how the fashion industry markets its products and how workers are treated, the global fashion industry is a notorious example of exploitation generated by opaque supply chains.
Questions about ethics split along contrasting lines: the global north as the fashion consumer and the global south as the fashion maker.
Read more: Why the fashion industry fails to fix labor exploitation
Australia’s Modern Slavery Act has included efforts to bring more transparency and accountability to these supply chains. It requires large companies to submit an annual statement to a public registry outlining efforts to identify and eliminate the risk of exploitative labor practices.
Country Road Group’s 2020 Modern Slavery statement states that the company is “committed to maintaining the highest social, ethical and environmental standards across its supply chains”.
But a commitment to ethics is arguably easier when the “problem” of labor rights is far from over and things like modern slavery statements (which rely on third-party auditing) can help hide unethical practices. What happens when the issue is at our doorstep?
Read more: Australia finally has a modern slavery act. here’s what you need to know
fair pay for all
We often think of the concept of “living wage” in relation to apparel workers abroad. But these warehouse workers told their union representatives that they couldn’t afford to live on the wages paid by the Country Road Group, much less clothes to pick up and pack themselves or their children into the warehouse. .
According to industry body Australian Fashion Council, 77% of the 489,000 workers employed in Australia’s fashion and textile industry workforce are women. This makes fair wages and conditions in the industry an important driver of women’s economic advancement. Industrial action is more than money; It is about respect and recognition.
Women are often responsible for change in the fashion industry. Women are not only the primary workforce; They are on the front lines of sustainable action, consumer activism and labor rights movements. It was a proposed strike by members of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union in New York in 1909 that led to the establishment of International Women’s Day.
Steps towards sustainability and ethical production are essential in the fashion industry. But if the realities of action do not extend All Workers across the supply chain, the rhetoric is empty.
Note: Co-author Lauren Kate Kelly is a researcher with the United Workers’ Union, which covers Country Road warehouse workers.